What is a food system?

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A community food system is a food system in which food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place. A community food system can refer to a relatively small area, such as a neighborhood, or progressively larger areas – towns, cities, counties, regions, or bioregions. The concept of community food systems is sometimes used interchangeably with “local” or “regional” food systems, but by including the word “community” there is an emphasis on strengthening existing (or developing new) relationships among all components of the food system.

Four aspects distinguish community food systems from the globalized food system that typifies the source of most food Americans eat: food security, proximity, self-reliance and sustainability.

  • Food security is a key goal of community food systems. While food security traditionally focuses on individual and household food needs, community food security addresses food access within a community context, especially for low-income households. It has a simultaneous goal of developing local food systems.
  • Proximity refers to the distance between various components of the food system. In community food systems such distances are generally shorter than those in the dominant or global food system. This proximity increases the likelihood that enduring relationships will form between different stakeholders in the food system – farmers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs, consumers, etc.
  • Self-reliance refers to the degree to which a community meets its own food needs. While the aim of community food systems is not total self-sufficiency (where all food is produced, processed, marketed and consumed within a defined boundary), increasing the degree of self-reliance for food, to be determined by a community partnership, is an important aspect of a community food system.
  • Sustainability refers to following agricultural and food system practices that do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their food needs. Sustainability includes land and environmental protection, profitability, ethical treatment of food system workers, and community development.

(Source: Cornell University)

Read this article from the Institute for Environmental Negotiation, Virginia Department of Forestry and the Virginia Cooperative Extension: What is a Food System?